A Norwegian study finds that heavy drinking or incompatible drinking habits can increase the chance of divorce. Experts say that excessive alcohol use disrupts daily tasks and functioning, and increases spousal conflicts.
In the new study, researchers discovered that both level of drinking and compatibility in drinking can have an influence on divorce.
“On average, divorced people drink more than married people,” said Fartein Ask Torvik, corresponding author for the study.
“To some extent, this is due to increased drinking after a divorce, but people who drink heavily also have a higher risk of experiencing a divorce, so heavy drinking likely interferes fundamentally with the quality of marriage.”
“Heavy alcohol consumption is a problem of great public health concern in most Western societies,” added Ellinor F. Major, director of the division of mental health at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. “It often leads to dysfunctional marriages and divorces. The present study adds to our understanding of the predictive value of alcohol use, and particularly of discordant alcohol consumption for marital dissolution.”
Researchers reviewed data from a sample of almost 20,000 married couples from one county.
All participants provided information on alcohol use and mental distress. Experts performed a statistical analysis on the data looking for divorce risk factors over a 15-year period. Researchers focused on demographics and mental distress as covariates.
“Essentially, the more people drink, the higher is the risk of divorce,” said Torvik. “In addition, the risk of divorce is lowered if the spouses drink approximately the same amount of alcohol. This is not only true for those who drink excessively — there is also a reduced risk of divorce if both spouses abstain totally from alcohol.
“Also, we found heavy drinking among women to be more strongly associated with divorce than heavy drinking among men.”
Major noted the importance of the latter finding. “For instance, the risk of divorce is estimated to be tripled when the husband’s level drinking is low and the wife’s drinking is heavy, compared with couples where both drink lightly,” she said.
“There are several possible explanations for this,” said Torvik. “One of them is that women in general seem to be more strongly affected by heavy drinking than men are. Thus, heavy-drinking women may be more impaired than heavy-drinking men. It is, however, important to note that heavy drinking is much less common among women than among men.”
“Heavy drinking among women is also less acceptable than among men in our society,” said Major. “A wife’s heavy drinking probably also interferes more with general family life — that is, the caring role of the mother, upbringing of children, etc.
“Perhaps the husband is more apt to the leave the spouse than is the wife when major problems occur. These factors may account for the higher risk for marital dissolution when the wife is a heavy drinker than when the husband is a heavy drinker.”
“Research on alcohol use and relationships should always include data from both spouses,” said Torvik. “The interaction between the spouses is too important to ignore. Likewise, clinicians working with this population should be interested in the alcohol use of the spouse.”
Major added that couples who intend to marry should be aware of the drinking pattern of their partner since it may become a problem in the future.
“Someone with a light or moderate alcohol use, who has a spouse who drinks heavily, should encourage that spouse to change their drinking pattern into light or moderate level if the main concern is a lasting marriage of good quality. Good advice probably would be to encourage a similar pattern of moderate or light drinking in both spouses,” she said.
“Furthermore, while our results indicate that compatibility in drinking is important with regard to divorce, a couple with two heavy drinkers still has a higher divorce risk than couples consisting of light drinkers,” noted Torvik.
“I would also like to add that we have only been looking into divorce — alcohol may lead to other social or health problems.”
Most couples in the present study had children, Major said. “It would be of interest to study the benefits and disadvantages for the children if parents choose to stay or leave a marriage because of discordant or concordant heavy drinking.
“From the children’s point of view, parental divorce brings a lot of suffering, but nonetheless, marriage dissolution might be preferable for some children rather than parents staying in a marriage with poor quality.”